You gotta serve somebody...

Week of Sunday January 26 - Epiphany 3
Gospel: Mathew 4:12-23

Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. 13He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the lake, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: 
15 ‘Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
   on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— 
16 the people who sat in darkness
   have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death
   light has dawned.’ 
17From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’

18 As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. 19And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ 20Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. 22Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him. 

23 Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. 24So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them. 25And great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—  on them light has shined. Mathew quotes these words from Isaiah 9. They are not a proof text, or a convenient way to explain why Jesus left Nazareth and lived in Capernaum; he means us to remember their context. If we read further in Isaiah 9 we see this:

You have multiplied the nation,
   you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
   as with joy at the harvest,
   as people exult when dividing plunder. 
4 For the yoke of their burden,
   and the bar across their shoulders,
   the rod of their oppressor,
   you have broken as on the day of Midian. 
5 For all the boots of the tramping warriors
   and all the garments rolled in blood
   shall be burned as fuel for the fire. 
6 For a child has been born for us,
   a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
   and he is named
Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
   Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 
7 His authority shall grow continually,
   and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
   He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
   from this time onwards and for evermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

He is announcing a fundamentally different way of being human based in justice, righteousness and peace, rather than the normal dog eat dog oppression and exploitation of the weak by the strong. This oppression is based ultimately in a life and culture which is unrighteous; that is, not based on the ways of God.

We have just read of Jesus temptation by the devil. He has been tempted to use his power— his life—  in unrighteous ways, which are essentially summed up in the third temptation: "…if you will fall down and worship me…" Matthew 4:9

Our culture may not consciously bow down and worship the devil, but in essence this is what we do when we do not base our being human in God. It is irrelevant whether there is a literal being called the devil, or whether "the devil" is a metaphor for living life as though we are the most important being in the world. If we do not follow the way of God, then we do follow the way of the devil. Bob Dylan was right: It may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you're gonna have to serve somebody.

Jesus turns away from Satan. He locates his home in a new place, a sign, Matthew says, that Isaiah 9 is being fulfilled. And he proclaims the new kingdom, the new way of being human, for from that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.

The implications of this repentance, this turning to a new way of being, are immediately made clear. He calls fishermen to be his disciples.

We do not know what some of the disciples did for a living. Why are we being told about these four? The identification of their occupation as his first act is clearly meant to be significant.

Quoting the book Matthew and the Margins (Carter) Brian Stoffregen says

While the fishermen have some economic resources, their social ranking is very low. In Cicero's ranking of occupations (De Off 1.150-51), owners of cultivated land appear first and fishermen last. Athenaeus indicates that fishermen and fishmongers are on a par with money lenders and are socially despised as greedy thieves (Deipnosophistai, 6.224b-28c). The two characters have a socially inferior and economically precarious existence under Roman control. It is among such vulnerable people that God's empire is first manifested. [p. 121]

The kingdom begins among the oppressed. There is more; it begins among those who are enmeshed in the system. We are being called out of the old way of being.

Fishing was controlled by the "powers that be" in two ways. (1) Commercial fishermen worked for the royal family or wealthy landlords who contracted with them to provide a specific amount of fish at a certain time. They were paid either with cash or with fish. (2) Fishermen leased their fishing rights from persons called "toll collectors" in the NT for a percentage of the catch. The "tax" could be as much as 40% (see Malina & Rohrbach, Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, p. 44).

Thus, Jesus calling fishermen is more than just calling them away from their families. It also involves a break from the "powers that be" -- the wealthy and or the government -- and into a new power: the reign of heaven. Carter (Matthew and the Margins) comments about significance of Jesus calling fishermen:

The double call narrative in 4:18-22, then, utilizes a common form to present Jesus as God's agent enacting his commission to manifest God's saving presence, the empire of the heavens, and to legitimate the beginning of an alternative community of disciples called to live on the basis of this reign. The calls occur in the midst of the empire's close control of fishing whereby licensing, quotas, and taxation secure Rome's sovereignty over the water and its contents. Jesus' call contests this dominant reality by asserting God's sovereignty and offering an alternative way of life. [p. 120] (Ibid)

We are all enmeshed in our cultural system. The fishermen were not as poor as some; with boats and nets they were relatively well off, and yet they were still part of the system, tied in as effectively as I am by a mortgage and credit cards. Jesus called them out of it, and calls us also.

I can remember confusion about just how Jesus calls us, even from primary school days. Are we all to give up our jobs? "Local systems of work and family were crucial for security and the fabric of society," Loader says, and this is still true. We are not all called to "go on the road," and those of us who are so called, are not somehow superior. Yet I have never been able to escape the sense that we often rationalise or water down the call. How do I know I am not merely excusing myself?

My challenge to myself has been to see the call not in terms of occupation or income, but in terms of allegiance. Who am I serving? Who is the most important person in the world; me or my neighbour?

As a minister, someone who has ostensibly "gone on the road," I can be just as self-focussed and just as enmeshed in our culture of materialism and consumerism as anyone else.

What counts is who, and what, I am living for. Am I a beneficiary of the yoke and the bar across the shoulders of the poor? Am I effectively the rod of their oppressor, effectively wearing the boots of the tramping warriors, or have I stepped out of that way of being?

This is far more profound question, and far more costly way of being, than simply being a minister, or being a member of my church. "When Jesus heard that John had been arrested," he made his home— he located his identity— in Galilee, the place of Isaiah's prophecy. It ended badly as this decision inevitably called him to Jerusalem because he did not live for himself, but lived for the new kingdom. Will I do the same?

Will I locate my identity in the new kingdom which has come near. Will the essence of my life be to feather my nest for a good retirement, or will it be to "proclaim… the good news of the kingdom and cur[e] every disease and every sickness among the people" I meet. Will people who meet me know someone different and— even if they cannot name it so— feel they have come near to the kingdom?

This may not end well; one of my colleagues has retired to a glorified trailer park, others have been beheaded and crucified by the church itself. But my discipleship is not to be safe. It is to hear the reports of John's death, and of Jesus' death, and to make my home in Galilee by the sea.

Andrew Prior

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!

I have benefited from Bill Loader's  First Thoughts, Epiphany 3 and Brian Stoffregen's Epiphany 3:  26 January  Matthew 4:12-23 as I begin to think about the readings this week.I have previously posted on the text at Matthew 4:12-25 - Repent




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